On Tuesday I sent this Twitter: “Interesting presbytery meeting today. Several people were examined thoroughly on what they believed about Hell.” After that I received several replies wanting me to elaborate on the discussion. I will attempt to do so. This first post will mainly be my account of what took place at the Presbytery meeting. There will be some background and context given, as well as interpretation on my part, and I certainly won’t remember everything that happened or exactly how it happened.
I plan to do at least one more post on the subject of Hell, maybe more, exploring traditional, historic, and current Christian beliefs about Hell. I don’t plan on specifically or explicitly teaching, preaching, or stating my personal beliefs about Hell. I’d rather have this be about the topic of Christian belief about Hell, rather than *my* Christian belief about Hell.
So here is the context of this particular situation explained for non-Presbyterians. The specific denomination I am a minister in is the Presbyterian Church (USA). The PC(USA) is a “connectional” church and this means that each individual church is governed by our PC(USA) constitution. The constitution is created and amended by Presbyteries and the General Assembly. The General Assembly is our highest governing body which meets every two years and consists of representatives from every Presbytery. Presbyteries are regional governing bodies that consist of a number of individual churches.
This past Tuesday was a regular meeting of Central Florida Presbytery. One of the things that regularly occurs at these meeting is the examination of candidates who are seeking to become ministers, and the examination of ministers transferring from one Presbytery to another. In our Presbytery this examination happens at the meeting where several hundred commissioners are present and able to ask questions to the person being examined.
There were several ministers seeking membership in our Presbytery this past Tuesday, and in her examination the first minister was asked what she believed regarding people who died without believing in Jesus Christ as Lord. Her answer stated that as she understood the Bible, Jesus Christ is the way to eternal life/Heaven/salvation, but what happens to those who do not believe in Jesus is up to God and a mystery to us. This answer was apparently not what the minister asking the question was seeking, so he proceeded to ask several follow-up questions. It seemed to me that the answer he was seeking was something along the lines of, “Anyone who does not believe in Jesus will be judged by God and sent to Hell for all eternity.”
Another minister asked similar questions of this candidate, and her answers were similar to the first answers she gave. After more questions, eventually the Presbytery voted to approve her membership although there were a handful of “no” votes. The next minister to be examined was asked “for the sake of consistency” the same question about non-believers by one of the earlier questioners. His answer was very similar to the previous answer, and was apparently not satisfactory to those who had been asking questions. His membership was approved as well. No more direct questions about what happens to non-believers.
This scene has played out in our Presbytery meetings before. Last year, my wife and I were on the receiving end of similar examinations although the particular topic I was asked a lot of questions about was different. What is happening in these examinations is not unique to our Presbytery, nor is it unique to our denomination, or even our time.
The question that is really being asked is “what are the acceptable boundaries for our beliefs as Christians and Presbyterians.” In our denomination we do not have a simple and concise list of specific beliefs which must be subscribed to. This isn’t to say that you can believe anything you’d like, but that within certain boundaries you are free to hold your own beliefs and still be identified as a Presbyterian. Think of it like a soccer field, as long as you are somewhere in the playing field you are a Presbyterian. You can be in the complete opposite corner from someone else, but as long as neither one of you has crossed the lines and gone out of bounds, you are both still Presbyterian.
The problem is when people can’t agree what out of bounds is. So what is happening in the PC(USA) is that some people are reacting to what they perceive as a broadening of the boundaries that is going too far. In this specific case one group thinks that Presbyterians must believe that those who do not believe in Jesus Christ will be judged by God and sent to Hell for all eternity.
The tricky part of this is that, in my opinion, no person being examined yesterday specifically denied this belief. It’s possible that they do actually deny it, but if so, they didn’t at this meeting. But apparently they didn’t articulate it as fully as the questioners wanted.
This is my rough, paraphrased and simple account of what happened on Tuesday. In my next post I’ll go deeper into specific Biblical and traditional beliefs about salvation and Hell, as well as alternative beliefs historical and current.